THE BLOG
11/08/2011 12:31 pm ET | Updated Jan 08, 2012

If You Send a Bull Into a China Shop, Things Will Be Broken

The father of the American nuclear navy was a demanding man. Admiral Hyman Rickover personally interviewed and selected every officer who would serve on a nuclear submarine; it was said of Rickover that he 'had little tolerance for mediocrity, none for stupidity.' At the slightest sign of either fault, a candidate was summarily dismissed. Rickover believed that just one mishap on a nuclear-powered vessel was one too many. Yet, his single-minded commitment to excellence was not always well received, especially at the Pentagon. One of Rickover's axioms was, "If you are going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy. God will forgive you but the bureaucracy won't."

Rickover waged an often lonely war against mediocrity, stupidity and the worst offenses of the Pentagon bureaucracy. For his efforts, he was twice passed over for promotion to admiral. It took a White House threat to change the admiral-selection process to win Rickover his much deserved stars. Yet, he would spend decades fighting a frequently losing battle against the institutional inertia beloved of career Pentagon administrators. Rickover's own basic theory of management was a challenge to that very bureaucracy: "Administration is, or ought to be, a necessary overhead to aid production, and should at all times be kept as low as possible."

Rickover's tumultuous relationship with the Pentagon lasted many years; but he is remembered as a hero for never abandoning his pursuit of excellence -- a pursuit that has given the United States the greatest, safest nuclear navy in the world. To the detriment of America's armed forces, a man cut from the same cloth as Admiral Rickover has had his pursuit of excellence brought to a premature end because he sinned against the bureaucracy.

Clifford Stanley retired from the Marine Corps as a Major General after 33 years in uniform. Then he served as the Executive Vice President of the University of Pennsylvania where he earned his doctorate. He was once again called to serve his country early in 2010, when he was sworn in as Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. In that office, he undertook the herculean task of rededicating the Pentagon to looking after the welfare of all men and women fighting under the flag of the United States. Stanley believed that just one suicide, whether on active duty or after discharge, was one too many. Yet, Stanley's single-minded commitment to his soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines -- and his belief that the administrative bureaucracy was there to serve, not to be served -- ran absolutely counter to the culture of mediocrity and inertia that prevails at the Pentagon.

Stanley was presented with a system rife with redundant and ineffectual mid-level administrators and career bureaucrats who did little more than siphon off vital funds and block vital innovations. Stanley was given a mandate from Defense Secretary Robert Gates to repair a broken department, to reduce useless personnel and to reorganize an outmoded system. Stanley cut waste, streamlined operations and removed feckless administrators. But in so doing, he attacked the bureaucracy; and the bureaucracy never forgave him.

Under Secretary Stanley has resigned from the Department of Defense, not because he lacks courage or perseverance, but because the very fabric of the Pentagon's leadership structure will not permit for the kind of change necessary to achieve the critical goals he set. Shocking as it may seem, there are more effective ways for a man of Stanley's talents to serve America's fighting men and women than serving as a high ranking official at the Pentagon. It was not so much that the entrenched bureaucrats under Stanley were incapable of implementing his vision of better, healthier armed forces; it was more so that administrative officials around him were outright inimical to Stanley's belief that every effort must be expended to improve the personnel management system, and that no policy is so sacrosanct that it cannot be discarded in the name of better serving the men and women who fight and die for their country.

Clifford Stanley has not resigned from the cause of improving the lives of American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines -- and the veterans of each branch of the armed forces; Stanley has merely removed himself from the bureaucracy that actually impedes and hinders that noble cause. Clifford Stanley's heroic efforts on behalf of America's men and women in uniform will continue. His commitment to excellence, so foreign to the Pentagon bureaucracy, will not be abandoned.

Admiral Hyman Rickover lost his last fight with the Department of Defense bureaucracy when he was forced to retire in 1982; but Rickover's legacy lives on in America's accident-free nuclear navy. Clifford Stanley's legacy of service to his country's warriors not only lives on, but will continue to make a significant difference in their lives, though not through the utterly outmoded, backward, and broken Pentagon personnel system. Rickover delivered his assessment of outmoded and backward system thus: "All men are by nature conservative but conservatism in the military profession is a source of danger to the country. One must be ready to change his line sharply and suddenly, with no concern for the prejudices and memories of what was yesterday. To rest upon formula is a slumber that, prolonged, means death." Clifford Stanley tried to change the Pentagon line sharply, but met with intransigent resistance. What might this mean for the leadership of the Department of Defense?

Winston Churchill had the answer: "This is a time to try men of force and vision and not be exclusively confined to those who are judged thoroughly safe by conventional standards."

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